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Federalism dynamics and unwanted scenarios

 Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury |  2013-06-27 17:26:02.0  |  New Delhi

Federalism dynamics and unwanted scenarios

Looking at Indian political scenario nowadays, one has to wonder in what direction it is heading. An unstable India could be the worst thing to happen to this, already trouble-fraught, region of South Asia. Would the system of coalition politics that they have devised over the years collapse and lead towards unknown possibilities? Or, a new model of the same is in the offing? Or, even remotely, is there any possibility of reverting to the relative stability of one dominant party that encompasses all the segments of that gigantic society?


Political scenario has been changing rapidly in India over the last two decades, with the demise of the dominant party system since 1990s, when the Congress started failing to achieve the halfway mark in the Lok Sabha. The divisive Hindu nationalist BJP, which threatened Congress’ longstanding stature, was equally unsuccessful in reaching the magic threshold by itself and has repeated more or less the same results like the Congress since then. Coalition politics ensued as natural consequence and the Indian political forces, both national and provincial, were able to work out some kind of pulling together, if not very smooth all the time.

The latest awkward trend seems to be the intense play, open or veiled, of provincial card at national level. The spirit of federalism is being recurrently breached to gain, sometimes relatively trivial, political ends in the provinces. It appears that the TMC party of West Bengal went to disproportionately extra length to threaten the stability of central government just to make an opposition-like populist belligerent posture to the voters of the province of West Bengal. For the seemingly same reason, the impulsive chief minister has prevented another would-be-landmark common river water sharing treaty between India and Bangladesh, the eastern neighbour being important to India in countering northeastern insurgency and for a potential shorter transit to that part of it. The Tamil ally of the Congress party, the DMK, did the similar thing in relation to Sri Lanka, where India needed to thwart the increasing Chinese influence. Deficient commitment to federal spirit is also visible in other key non-coalition ally in the north, the SP and BSP, who are at loggerheads themselves in the state of Uttar Pradesh and often seek nuisance value with almost stubborn egotism at the cost of central government usual functioning. There are also reckonable militant regional forces like Shiv Sena and MNS in Maharashtra, Akali Dal in Punjab and ASU in Assam apart from the already secessionist insurgents in the Northeast and in Kashmir.    

In a federal system, it is normal to expect all the political parties who have representation at the upper sphere of politics to behave responsibly considering, the greater interest of the nation at that level and abroad and not to muddle issues of provincial politics with that. But the decreasing regards for the federal structure and its functional spirit on the part of the regional parties of India can turn the whole system into jeopardy and keep mechanically linking the crucial differentiation of federal and provincial domains. The result is a weaker central government always preoccupied with the question of survival and hardly being able to take any crucial domestic reform or foreign policy decisions.

A parallel to the Indian federal structure can be found in Germany. Despite the latter being a developed country, it also, like India, has provinces/states and provincial parties and coalition at the centre for several decades now. Yet, by developing their federalist political culture they manage to put the national and provincial spheres beyond local influence and despite not having dominant single or bi party system, the country has been governed with great equality and the political class has produced coherent and effective legislations and executive decision at both the national and provincial levels.

Most Indian provincial parties don’t seem to be worried about a principled position at the national level. Instead of aligning themselves with the paradigm of national politics, they tend to utilise their numbers in the national parliament for a range of beneficial ends, varying from an economic package that they can take credit for having extracted for the province, to gaining favour through the central government’s holding back of the Central Bureau of Investigation in proceeding against their leadership accused of corruption. A pattern of raw quid pro quo is emerging. Should it be considered an aberration of federal propriety or as a new functional model? Indian leadership appears to be happy in settling for the latter. Perhaps, the bigger national parties and their top brass realise that’s the only way to keep the plethora of provincial forces of this diverse nation somewhat together. But peril may lurk in future. Extensive fragmentation for political forces could result in the loss of a central unifying threads that the Congress party and lately, with limitations, the BJP and perhaps the Left, to some extent, have been rendering. Further division of political forces, especially the pan Indian ones, could eventually signal a beginning of the end that no one, in Indian political spectrum, wants to utter, as of now. The fall out of that unthinkable might well destabilise the entire region.

The weakening of central power also makes it harder to tackle serious issues like communal bigotry, terrorism, militancy etc. Entities, almost extra constitutional, like Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navanirman Sena, SGPC, Deobandh Darul Ulum, RSS, Bajrang Dal, VHP, etc. are expanding their constituencies. Maoist groups are ever more active in underdeveloped parts of central India. Full normalcy is far from a reality in Kashmir and in the Northeast as the separatists continue to be in action to some degree. One may argue that the worst hasn’t happened. It may be true; but the same can’t be said about the future looking at the decay of central power.

Expectation in case of a country as diverse and, problem prone thereof, as India has to be pragmatic. Therefore, consistent status quo, more or less, through the existing or a new model of coalition politics at national domain could be described as a reasonable achievement for the republic. But obviously some calibration of the system, whichever one is adopted, is imperative to make it effective enough to deliver reasonably so as to fit the bill of domestic and international expectations in terms of economic growth and good governance at the least. While most of the big and small nations of the developing world are already in this rush, lagging behind for a country of India’s stature is unimaginable to any of the stake holders. IPA

The author is a commentator on South Asian politics from Bangladesh

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